Marina Bay and Esplanade Walk

Evening walks along the Esplanade and Marina Bay in Singapore is when I become impressed all over again on the development of the waterfront. It is Singapore at one of its prettiest in the evening.

Begin the walk at the Raffles Place MRT station which leads straight to the waters of the Singapore River. Boat Quay is visible on the left with restaurants and bars by the water. The Fullerton Hotel is on the right with its most visible grandeur as one of Singapore's landmark. The Performance Arts Building, nicknamed The Durian, is on the far right. Walk along the river towards The Fullerton Hotel and go past it until you reach the main road, Esplanade Drive. Cross the road so that you are on the same side as the Fullerton One Building. Take the steps down to the bay walk along the waters. Right across the waters is the Marina Bay Sands with its recognizable structure that is meant to resemble boat that sits atop 3 towers. How befitting of an architecture for Marina Bay where the port of Singapore is.

Next to Marina Bay Sands is the Art and Science Museum in the shape of a blossoming flower. The Singapore Flyer is also there as you look to the left of the Art and Science Museum.

Walk to the left where the Merlion is. A symbol of Singapore, the mermaid-lion statue, is constantly surrounded by tourists trying to snap a picture of the statue itself but I think a more endearing view is seeing the water shooting out from the Merlion's mouth with The Durian building beautifully lit up and sitting in the background. The durian fruit is unique to Southeast Asia, offering a quintessential backdrop.

Take the steps back up to Esplanade Drive and walk along the bridge towards the direction of The Durian. On the bridge, the view captures the Merlion with the rest of the landmarks across the water. Keep walking until the end of the bridge and take the steps down towards the water. Here you will get a good view of the Central Business District. At this time, you can pop in to a cafe or bar at Marina Bay Square.


Singapore's Chinatown

One of the things that remain impressive to me having visited Singapore many times is the preservation of heritage buildings by retaining the exterior architecture. Many of these heritage buildings have the recognizable style of windows and today there could be restaurants, bars, and boutiques that occupy these buildings. In Singapore's Chinatown, the building preservation is no different. Each storefront has their windows painted uniquely so that each store carries its own character and personality. People will say this is probably the cleanest Chinatown they've been to (but of course, this is Singapore we're talking about). Ironically, we've heard laments from a few friends who see this environment as too "artificial" and they long for the old days where the streets felt more "natural". Well, the old days are not going to come back though one can always continue to romanticize the past. For now, we still have these buildings (no matter how overly preserved they may be, if there is such a thing) to cling on to that offer a glimpse of the past. The main commercial strips of Chinatown are along Pagoda Street and Temple Street.

The area beyond the main commercial strips have evolved into a night spot destination among the young professionals. Who ever says that Chinatown is not a place to hang out in the evening? Along Erskine Road and Ann Siang Road are boutiques. Club Street has intimate eateries offering European cuisine and these establishments that take on the colorful facade of what one would expect of Chinatown.

Perhaps my most favorite part of all is how true diversity is reflected in Chinatown. In the multicultural fashion of this city state, there are three different places of worship located on the same street in Chinatown. The Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple, Jamae Mosque, and a Chinese temple are located just a block from each other along South Bridge Road.


Maxwell Food Centre

Across the many hawker centres in Singapore, Maxwell Food Centre is probably one of those that is not a secret to tourists. However, a tourist trap it is not. Locals frequent several stalls there in particular and as many Singaporeans love to do, they will stand in line for however long it takes to get that particular type of food they want to eat. The urge to eat and satisfy one's desire and craving is pretty strong in this city, I must say.


I think I have been told by local friends that I have officially become a Singaporean after choosing to stand in line for a good one hour at the Zhen Zhen Porridge stall, one the stalls at Maxwell that boasts the longest lines. Bless T for his patience. This stall sells out early too. There is a big metal cauldron with an automatic stirrer that goes on and on so that the rice porridge is constantly kept in a well blended and smooth texture. The male cook dishes out the rice porridge from the cauldron and into a smaller pot on the stove burner. The porridge is then individualized depending on the order. Porridge options include sliced fish, fish belly, chicken, and century egg. One order is prepared in one pot at a time; there are two pots going on at a time on the stove burner.  The lady garnishes the food and collects the money from customers.

The porridge is the smoothest and creamiest we've had and seen with hardly any trace of individual rice grains. The other star item of Zhen Zhen Porridge is the yusheng (raw fish salad). Sliced raw fish is dressed with shaved lettuce, cilantro, ginger, sesame seed, sesame oil dressing, and accompanied with sliced fresh red chillies and lime.

We return to Maxwell on another day. When it comes to chicken rice, every Singaporean is passionate about this dish and everyone has their favorite. It's always a debatable topic on where to find better or the best chicken rice. Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice takes the number 1 spot out of the different places we've tried. We get there at 2pm and there is a line of customers despite the off peak hour. The lines does move a little quicker than Zhen Zhen Porridge.

We decide to do a little "chicken rice showdown" among ourselves between the Tian Tian and Ah Tai stalls. Just before this, we hear that Ah Tai, another chicken rice stall that is located next to Tian Tian, is operated by a previous chef of Tian Tian. There was a fallout which led him to open the stall next door, and even going so far as to having a signboard with the same blue color theme. We order half a chicken from each Tian Tian and Ah Tai. As important as the chicken itself, we also compare the flavored rice from both stalls.

Tian Tian's chicken is smooth and the skin retains the gelatinous layer which is very tempting to eat (admittedly, I decide to give in and sneak some chicken skin onto my spoon). It is what dreams are made of. The rice is fragrant and the glaze over the chicken has a good consistency. I spoon some glaze onto the leftover rice on my plate. Ah Tai's chicken pieces look more pressed and flattened. The texture is not the smooth as the chicken from Tian Tian. The glaze and rice from Ah Tai also fall short. (Note: The green serveware are from Tian Tian; the blue from Ah Tai).

The silky and milky broth with noodles at Jin Hua Sliced Fish Bee Hoon is what drives the line of people at this stall. The line tends to form a few minutes before opening time. The fish slices here are large with a solid texture. I do find it is misleading that despite the name of the stall having the word bee hoon in it, the noodles used look more like lai noodles (round, thick, and slippery noodles) rather than what I've come to know as bee hoon (thin rice noodles). The broth is silky and the added evaporated milk into the broth adds to the consistency. The flavor is evident but overall lacks an oomph factor.

Maxwell Food Centre
1 Kadayanallur St
Singapore 069184

Stalls mentioned
Zhen Zhen Porridge #1-54 (5:30am-2:30pm, closed Tue)
Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice #1-10 (11:00am-8:00pm, closed Mon)
Jin Hua Sliced Fish Bee Hoon #1-77 (11:00am-8:30pm, closed Thu)


Henri Charpentier


Tokyo is filled with many French-inspired Japanese desserts, or perhaps I should it's Japanese-inspired French desserts. Japanese pastry chefs have a special way of incorporating French techniques into Japanese desserts while making tweaks and adjustments to suit the local palate. Even after this sort of cultural amalgamation in the different world of desserts, the resulting taste is not compromised but brought to perfection. In fact, the Japanese is known for their traits in perfecting a task that they are to execute.

At Henri Charpentier, the Japanese-French dessert salon is located in the basement which makes a fabulous spot to getaway from shopping in the luxury shopping area in Ginza. The walk on the stairs is surrounded by a wall made to look like a cookbook library with layers of shelves filled with recipe books and pink hardcover books.

The crepe suzette here stands out in the way it's prepared table side. The server wheels a cart to our table with prep materials for the crepe. The crepe itself is made in the kitchen first but flambeed table side. First, the orange caramel sauce is poured into the saucepan with the crepe. The server uses a spoon and continuously makes sure that the caramel sauce is all over the delicate crepe.

She opens the bottle of Grand Marnier, pours the orange liqueur into a glass, and carefully tilts the glass over the open flame. She then skillfully and gently swirls the glass in a rhythmic fashion over the flame. The liqueur slightly lights up and is poured over the crepe leaving to simmer until the sauce further caramelizes and thickens.

There is no table side showtime for the other item of chocolate crepe with chocolate coffee cream and it turns out to be our favorite among the two items. The level of chocolate is perfect without being too intense or rich; the preserved orange slices add a nice touch to the overall chocolatey-ness of the dessert. We are fans, for sure.

Henri Charpentier
3-6-1 Ginza,  
Chuo, Tokyo


Nagi Ramen Golden Gai

We walk along the very narrow alleyways of Golden Gai in Shinjuku, Tokyo looking for Nagi Ramen until we recognize the signage.  A young male employee in a Barbour jacket is standing at the entrance of the narrow stairs that lead to the ramen shop upstairs. I say to him "ramen?" and he asks if we speak Japanese. T tells him "sukoshi." He then tells us to please head upstairs to buy our ramen tickets first and then gestures us to join the line of customers after purchasing the tickets. We look in the direction of his hand gesture and see what we did not even realize before: a line of customers standing in a very dim alleyway so narrow that it only has space for a single line. The existence of the alleyway is not intentional; it happens to be a tight space between two buildings.

We walk up the rickety and narrow stairs to the ramen shop, each step of the stairs is not wide enough to rest the entire foot on. We get to the top and buy our ramen tickets from the vending machine (it is common practice to "order" and pay for your ramen through a vending machine so that the chef does not have to handle change). Then we walk down the stairs and join the line in the alleyway.

About 30 minutes later, the young man standing by the stairs gestures us upstairs to get seated. Ramen shops in Tokyo are generally tight spaced and Nagi Ramen is literally a hole in the wall. We have no complains, it adds to better socializing atmosphere for us at this 10-seater ramen shop. Once we're seated, we don't even think about moving about. We are there just to enjoy the ramen moment

Nagi Ramen specializes in tonkotsu broth flavored with sardines. The broth is pungent and the sardines flavor is strong. The taste is unlike anything we've had before. We've had quite a lot of tonkotsu ramen but when pork bones and sardines come together in the Nagi way, it transforms the broth to a whole new flavor. Behind the counter are two employees; one prepares the ramen and the other serves the ramen over the counter.

Preparing ramen has to be precise. For each batch, the noodles are placed on a weighing scale to get the right amount of noodles. Then, the noodles are placed in boiling water and the timer starts. Having the right amount of noodle with the right cooking time ensures consistency in reaching the ideal noodle texture. We get the special niboshi ramen and the tsukemen (dipping ramen). The noodle has an addictive chewy texture that shows that the noodle is freshly made. Each bowl has a few sheets of thin and slightly wide "noodle" that is very reminiscent of gyoza skin which I like very much. The pungent broth makes it the most memorable ramen we've had, and probably one of the best we've had.

One of the employees behind the counter asks if we are in Tokyo for vacation. He then says to us, "Working?" (at least he didn't mistake us for being students). We tell him yes, and he makes a guess and says "Engineer?" A wild guess definitely but far from accurate. We tell him it's our second time in Tokyo and the city is tanoshii. He smiles and agrees with us. I point to my bowl of my ramen and say "Best." He nods happily and the other employee preparing the ramen overhears and smiles to himself.

We are more than satisfied after our meal and as we carefully walk down the narrow stairs, the employee who is still supervising the line downstairs surprises us by saying "Take care."

Nagi Ramen
Shinjuku Golden-gai (G2 street) 2F, 1-1-10, Kabukicho


High Five Bar

T and I have social media to thank for discovering High Five Bar in Tokyo, owned by the world renowned bartender Hidetsugu Ueno. Given that T and I are huge fans of Brendan Sodikoff's restaurants in Chicago (Bavettes Bar and Boeuf, Maude's Liquor Bar, Gilt Bar), we trust the taste of Chicago's known restaurateur. In an interview with him on Eater Chicago, Sodikoff mentions High Five Bar as one of his favorite bars in Tokyo and even going so far as to naming his upcoming ramen joint in Chicago after this bar. Another random time as I browse my Twitter feed, I see a tweet from Grant Achatz (of Chicago's Alinea and Next) that he is at High Five Bar during his trip there. A quick online search reveals the bar's reputation.

Ueno-san, the renowned bartender and owner of High Five Bar has created himself a little hideout on the 4th floor of a business building. The counter at the bar seats only 8 people and the 2 tables at the side can tightly accommodate about 6 more people. Halfway through the night, a few Japanese opened the door to the bar only to be politely and apologetically turned away because unfortunately there really is no open seats to accommodate them.

Though he takes his craft seriously, he does not take himself too seriously. There are energetic and boisterous laughter from him all night. With his highly styled hair and suspenders, Ueno-san is extremely approachable and humble. One would not have guessed that he is one of the top men in his field.

There is no menu here. Assisted by two employees, they ask guests what type of drinks he or she likes: Refreshing? Smokey? Whiskey? Vodka? Then, Ueno-san goes on to create the drink. His technique is precise and methodical. We both order a Scotch cocktail but each of our cocktails is prepared differently- mine has cherry blossom liqueur  added to the drink and each sip has a nice lingering taste which I like very much; Tim's drink is a little more "masculine", for the lack of a better word. After our first cocktail, we order whiskey on the rocks and according to Ueno-san, in his 23 years of bartending, we are one of the 100 guests who have ordered just whiskey alone. Speaking perfect English, he explains the unique Japanese whiskeys on the shelf, the different types and breweries. Take Asama whiskey, for example. It's made in Japan but due to some contractual rules, this whiskey is only sold outside of Japan and then renamed Asama. He tells us that his bottle of Asama on the shelf is bought from London.

Everything Ueno-san is for a reason. Throughout the night, we see several cocktails made with a metal shaker except for when he is making a cocktail with fresh kiwi juice and using a plastic shaker. I ask curiously the reason for him switching to a plastic shaker for this particular drink. He laughs and and cheekily says, "Because I have no money" to buy more metal shakers. And then, getting a bit more serious in his craft, he replies that when shaking the juice, the key is not to dilute it but just chill it. Metal shakers are hard enough that through vigorous shaking, it can cause small chips to break off from the ice which can then dilute the juice.

At one point, we tell him, "You're very famous." He replies, "In a good or bad way?", and then laughs. We tell him that he is mentioned in Twitter. He says that he has a Facebook account though he does not go on there often. There are over a thousand friend requests but he does not know those people. Ahhh, we told you your'e famous.

High Five Bar
Ginza 7-2-14, No.26 Polestar Building, 4th Floor



Under the Yurakucho train tracks


One of the most interesting aspects that makes Tokyo "Tokyo" is the hundreds of eating and drinking establishments located in hidden spots, along alleyways, or under train tracks. As hidden or secretive the location may appear to be to someone who does not live in this city, these establishments are everyday joints that locals frequent. Under the JR Yurakucho train tracks are a long stretch of yakitori restaurants, ramen spots, and bars from the northern to southern sections of the tracks. On weekdays especially, it is a popular spot for salarymen after work before catching the train home as part of their everyday commute. Establishments are found on the outer side of the tracks facing the main road. More treasure troves of drinking and eating spots that are not visible from the main road can be explored on foot as you make your way underneath the tracks and into pedestrian tunnels and alleyways. Our November visit here is cold but there is no stopping the Japanese from enjoying a night out with friends outdoors. Friends, food and drinks (Highball is a popular choice among the salarymen) are all that matters.

We explore the maze of alleyways and decide on a random spot that catch our eyes. It is 9pm and most tables are already filled but we manage to score two seats at an outermost corner section of the tightly spaced restaurant. At 10pm, the place is completely filled. The late comers have to settle with the standing corner tables. Besides biru (beer), people are drinking glasses of Highball one after another. Everyone is happy. Funny conversations seem to be taking place all round as evidenced by the atmosphere, voices, and laughter.

We order items of yakitori to go with our beer. The grilled reba (chicken liver) remains one of the best liver items I've had- it is very lightly grilled on the outside so that the inside remains rare to medium rare. Topped with a pinch of fresh root wasabi, the texture and flavor of the liver is very memorable. The enoki-wrapped chicken and tsukune (ground chicken), though a seemingly safe choices, are not boring because they are done so well. Our favorite is the bacon-wrapped chives with its perfect balance of saltiness from the bacon and natural flavors from the chives to balance out the bacon. The Japanese sweet potato fries are so addictive with beer, they're a must-have.

Though primarily a night spot, there are some establishments that are open in the day. Breakfast one morning for us is at a standing-only ramen shop under the JR Yurakucho train tracks- we pay at the vending machine, hand our tickets to the man behind the counter, and wait for our shoyu ramen and side of kare raisu (Japanese curry rice). One will never go hungry in Tokyo.


Another type of breakfast (aka not sushi) at Tsukiji Fish Market


One of the most understated but wonderful things to do at Tsukiji Fish Market is not actually eating sushi. This world famous market is known for its tuna auction in the wee hours of the morning, busy and bustling wholesale fish market, and restaurants in the outer market area where people stand in line even before the sun comes up for some very affordably priced but excellent sushi for breakfast. Aside from what the market is known among curious visitors, Tsukiji Fish Market is an actual business establishment where serious and important fish business take place everyday. With the hundreds of workers at the market everyday, it's also a place for them and other locals to grab breakfast or lunch before and after work. These Japanese workers and other locals at the market don't survive on sushi everyday. Among the popular sushi restaurants that most non-Japanese visitors are only there for, there are also many other family-operated and generation-owned establishments in the same area that are worth experiencing for a true authentic atmosphere which thrive from mainly local patrons.


On a return trip to Tsukiji Fish Market for breakfast, we decide to forgo sushi this time (been there, done that!) and walk into a restaurant that only served hot food from the kitchen. We slide the glass door open into the expected tightly-spaced 8-10 seater establishment and found ourselves two seats at the counter. An elder couple- presumably husband and wife, are in the kitchen while a young man takes orders from and serves the customers. English is not spoken here and that's where the fun comes with pointing and T's basic and useful Japanese phrases he learnt. Some of the items are pictured on the wall as well.

When it comes to breakfast food, eating dishes with rice is not at all atypical in Japan. We notice that every patron there, man and woman, each has a large bowl of rice to his or herself. We opt for a small bowl of rice instead. We scarf down our bowl of rice with Hijiki seaweed, mentaiko (cod roe), stew of pig stomach with jellyfish, and another stew of thinly sliced beef with a whole block of tofu. The pig stomach is absolutely tender and not chewy and the jellyfish is soft. The breakfast is pure homely and comfort food. It is not fancy and does not have to be. We finish up with a bowl of asari miso soup that are made with the tiniest and cutest clams. Other items available include fish braised with shoyu and fried whole fish. We already have plans to be back.